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Reviewed by Emma Leigh Burridge
In this debut short story collection from Freight Books, Manchester-based Lara Williams serves up a series of vignettes which chart the many struggles and successes of twenty-first century life, topping off many a beautifully arranged phrase with a side order of realism that sometimes strikes a little too close to the heart. Treats is true to its title, offering up little morsels of stories, indulgently sweet at times, sickly at others, but gobbled up eagerly all the same.
Authentic and insightful are words frequently used to blurb Williams’ writing, and I would like to emphasise the latter – Williams knows. She knows how to capture the peculiar feeling of displacement when moving back into your family home (“slotting neatly into your single bed”) and the pressure to supposedly start your life properly once you graduate university (“you tell him this is just a stopgap, just until you figure out what you’re supposed to do”). It is with this sense of starting your story in the Real World that she fittingly opens Treats (“And so it begins”), addressing the second-person ‘you’ and effectively drawing me into the story as I nodded along in understanding. She knew these feelings, I knew these feelings, these feelings were valid.
The truth is… I’m no connoisseur of short stories; I’ve often found them too incomplete, too abstract, and too ambiguous for my own personal satisfaction. Treats, however, revels in these qualities – often pulling the rug out from under the reader with a sudden and startling tug in stories such as ‘It’s A Shame About Ray’ which seems to catalogue the banalities of married life with a new baby, only to abruptly pull back the curtain and reveal a startling reality. Likewise, stories such as ‘Dates’, barely two pages in length, perfectly capture the anxiety of self-presentation when meeting someone new (“Consider how you might pitch yourself”) and the predictable, almost scientific, trajectory of a dud date (“Consider why you are even trying to meet someone if you are happiest when left alone”). Such clever writing will stay with me long after I’ve finished reading the 120 pages or so which make up Williams’ debut collection.
So, as obscure as some of the concepts she explores are to me personally (I’ve never had to endure the reality of a long-distance relationship or had to face a parents’ evening as a single-parent), Williams’ keen insight into the universal feelings of optimism, alienation, dissatisfaction, jealousy, anxiety, self-navigation and isolation are something every reader can appreciate. The author’s voice is wry and witty, and completely relatable.
The overwhelming conclusion I take from Treats is the bizarrely comforting realisation that life, and living, is nothing more than a transitory and temporary situation. As individuals we’re constantly striving for Something or Someone, whether that’s a partner or the best version of ourselves, and we’re never quite satisfied with what we have or what we are. Reassuringly, however, none of us have the slightest clue what we truly want, what we’re doing, or where we’re going. By existing, by living, we’re just striving to connect, to be understood and to understand, to exist together, for better or for worse.